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The sheriff of the nation's largest local jail system is under pressure to resign. Longtime Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca is accused of turning a blind guide to widespread abuse of inmates by his deputies. Baca spent days blasting his critics, including the FBI, which ran a sting operation in one of his jails.
But as NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, the four-term sheriff now says he's instituting reforms and he'll open his cell doors to independent inspectors.
CARRIE KAHN: It's been a rough couple of weeks for Sheriff Lee Baca. Volunteers in the jail, including two chaplains, filed sworn affidavits they witnessed subdued inmates being beaten. A top-ranked rookie deputy reportedly quit after refusing orders to beat a mentally ill inmate, and calls for Baca to resign grew louder.
Last week, flanked by dozens of his top brass, Baca told reporters allegations of abuse were being exaggerated. Yesterday, he toned down his defiance, sort of.
LEE BACA: I'm going to continue to receive the criticism as positively as I can. But I'm not going anywhere.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: All right.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPALUSE)
KAHN: Baca showed up yesterday at a small church near downtown L.A. About a dozen African-American activists from some of the city's lesser-known churches gathered to show their support for the sheriff.
Dr. SANDRA MOORE: I just want the community to know that he's not resigning. We won't allow it.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: That's right. That's right.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPALUSE)
MOORE: He's not going anywhere.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: No way.
KAHN: Dr. Sandra Moore, of Concerned Citizens for Fair Policing, praised Baca for being a true humanitarian and she blasted his critics for not trusting him to right his own ship.
MOORE: We're going to work with him side by side. Before you say the house is on fire, tell the fireman.
KAHN: Baca said he understands there are problems of excessive force in the jails. He says his deputies have a tough job maintaining order in the county's overcrowded and antiquated facilities, but he's showing them how to do better.
BACA: My admonition to my own deputies is you'll never find me disrespecting an inmate. And therefore, I'm asking you to not disrespect an inmate.
KAHN: Baca has been holding town hall-style meetings with inmates in the jails the past two weekends. He says he set up a 35-member task force of internal investigators to look into past and future abuse allegations. And he says he will now be given information directly about all inmate concerns.
But Peter Eliasberg, of the ACLU, which has long complained about abuse in the jails, says Baca's promises ring hollow.
PETER ELIASBERG: The Sheriff's Department has shown itself unable to police itself in the past. And it is amazing to me that Sheriff Baca is saying, well, gee, I didn't know about this stuff before but now I'm really going to pay attention.
KAHN: A federal court has placed an ACLU observer in L.A.'s biggest jail. Eliasberg says the Sheriff needs to step down and federal authorities need to come in, investigate and order reforms.
Currently, the FBI says it's investigating several allegations, including one witnessed by the ACLU's monitor. The Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department is also looking into allegations of racial discrimination by Sheriff Deputies in northern L.A. County.
For now, the County Board of Supervisors are backing the sheriff. Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky says he hasn't lost confidence in Baca, but he does want an independent review of the jails. He wants local retired officials to do it, not the feds.
ZEV YAROSLAVSKY: But if the department doesn't get its act together, then I think we're inviting a federal takeover, a consent decree, and the kind of thing that the LAPD had which was long, costly, and ultimately successful but very disruptive in the meantime.
KAHN: Baca says he's willing to let anyone come in to his jails who wants to, but he'll make any necessary changes.
BACA: Let's not just look at what's happened in the past and try and account for it. Let's go forward and build a better future for inmates and deputies alike.
KAHN: The future for Baca and his deputies is about to get even more challenging. The state is under court order to slash its prison population by 30,000. For the county and Sheriff Lee Baca that means thousands more inmates will be staying in L.A.'s jails.
Carrie Kahn, NPR News.